“Agriculture is our wisest pursuit, because it will in the end contribute most to real wealth, good morals, and happiness.”

— Thomas Jefferson to George Washington, 1787

“Burn down your cities and leave our farms and your cities will spring up again as if by magic. But destroy our farms and grass will grow in the streets of every city in this country…”

— William Jennings Bryan, 1896

The U.S. Department of Agriculture might yet take the side of working farmers in their struggle for fair prices and policies that promote a safe and healthy food system for the 21st century.

After years of favoring big agribusiness interests – especially those owned by firms with interests outside the United States — the Obama administration’s Agriculture Department is finally beginning to take an interest in the struggles of farm families, communities and consumers.

The restoration of a measure of balance at the federal level is coming slowly. And there are plenty of players within the department who are either ignorant or worse when it comes to wise farm, food and trade policies.

But the decision by the Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) to organize five workshops around the country to determine the impacts of market concentration on independent producers is a significant step.

As National Farmers Union president Roger Johnson says, it matters that the USDA and DOJ showing serious interest in “current market competition, concentration, vertical integration, captive supply, captive transportation and the impacts on producers and consumers.”

The USDA and the DOJ have indicated an interest in establishing a permanent dialogue concerning market control and antitrust concerns in the agriculture industry.

The key is for that dialogue to be an honest one regarding the damage done to the great majority of American farmers – and to farm communities and farm states – by the consolidation of ownership in agricultural industries.

“Anti-competitive actions within the agricultural marketplace stifle the ability of independent farmers and ranchers to receive a fair price for their commodities,” says Johnson, whose organization of working farmers has detailed the negative impacts of “increasingly concentrated and dysfunctional agricultural markets.”

Years and years of lax agency oversight – under Republican and Democratic administrations – has opened the door to the sort of industry-wide consolidation and vertical integration that squeezes family farmers, undermines food safety protections and fosters all the pathologies associated with factory farming and industrialized food production.

Johnson is right when he says that: “Anti-competitive actions within the agricultural marketplace stifle the ability of independent farmers and ranchers to receive a fair price for their commodities.”

When independent producers – especially family farmers – are forced to conform to the bottom-line values of corporate agribusiness, communities, consumers and citizens suffer. And until the U.S. Department of Agriculture takes sides in the struggle over farms and food, the damage done by concentrated and dysfunctional agricultural markets will only worsen. Let’s hope the balance is tipping, finally, in the right direction.